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Attachment and The Tibetan Book of the Dead

One of the books I purchased while I was in Kerala recently was the just published Complete Short Stories of M Mukundan, a huge, nearly one-thousand-page volume of 157 short stories. I bought the book on a day I visited three book fairs in Thrissur: one inside the Sahitya Akademi premises, a second one in the Paramekkavu Devaswam hall, and a third one at the Thekkinkadu Grounds. Three book fairs, all within walking distance of one another! And all three fairs were crowded with visitors. It is not for nothing that beautiful Thrissur is called the cultural capital of the very educated Kerala!

This morning I read the first story in Mukundan’s collection, a story called Maunam. This is one of the nine stories in this volume that have not appeared in any previous collection. I am not a systematic reader, and love reading without much plan, but it so happened that this time I picked up the first story to begin with.

Now that I think of it, I wonder if my choice was unconsciously influenced by the title Maunam, meaning silence. Silence is something I love boundlessly and have sought throughout my life. I have memories of seeking solitude and silence in the deserted primary school near my house after the school hours were over and during the vacations. I was a young boy then and I would climb over the wall or crawl under the gate and spend hours all alone there. Another place I frequented was the upper floor of the tall gopuram of the temple where few people ever went, and a couple of other lonely places. I do not remember any occasion when I was restless at these places – their serenity always enraptured me and I was always ready to surrender myself to it.

Maybe I was also influenced, again unconsciously, by the fact that I have soon to give a session on silence to a group of corporate executives coming from all over the country as part of a training programme in corporate communication.

Mukundan’s Maunam, of course, has nothing to do with corporate communication or the world of business. It is the story of an old man.
The first thing that fascinated me in the story was the age of the old man. One of the things that the author tells us about the old man is that he was not even willing to think about death, in spite of his age. Mukundan adds that several acquaintances of his, people of his age, were already dead and gone.

Guess how old the old man is? One would imagine him to be in his eighties, or at least in his late or mid seventies. Isn’t that the age we associate with death today? Isn’t that the age when old men and women today find the people they grew up with have left them one by one? Isn’t that the age today when they accept the inevitability of a death soon to come?

But the old man in the story is not in his eighties, or seventies, or even in his sixties! He is all of fifty-six years!

No, this is not an error on the part of Mukundan.

I do not know when Maunam was written, but it appears it was written a long time ago. Maybe, it is one of Mukundan’s early stories. I wish the publishers had given the date of the original publication of each story, as they have done in some other collections. Mukundan has been writing for a long time now – forty-five years. He was born in 1942 and his first story appeared when he was twenty-one. Maybe Maunam was written sometime in the sixties.

In the nineteen-sixties, a man of fifty-six was an old man. In several government services, people retired from their jobs at fifty-six, because the government considered after that age a man was not in full command of his faculties and could not work satisfactorily, he should go home and spend the rest of his life in ease and comfort! As a young boy I remember considering sixty an impossibly old age. A man attaining sixty years of age was an important event that needed to be celebrated and was celebrated then. I remember our family celebrating my father’s sixtieth birthday – his shashtipoorti. At sixty you were really, really old – at least in popular perception. Perhaps a comparison would be to something like what it is to be eighty years old today.

Reading Maunam made me look back at those old days and smile. For I myself used to be in awe of people who had crossed sixty.

How the times have changed!


Maunam is a story of death. The old man in the story, Narayanan Nambiar, dies towards the end of the story.

As his soul learns in the ICU of the town hospital that death is about to come, it realizes with a shock that it is about to lose the nest it has occupied for the last more than half a century. The soul flutters about frantically inside its cage of flesh and blood. It then runs about desperately among the billions of cells that form his five-foot-six body. The soul is now in a state of panic. Nambiar has a massive cardiac arrest and his soul clutches on to him desperately with its hundreds of invisible hands.

Nambiar dies. The soul, flung outside his body, flutters around him in dread. Its days of being in Nambiar’s body and experiencing his joys and sorrows, his angers and retaliations, his kindnesses and compassions are over. Now there is nothing left before it but the beginningless void.

The soul goes and perches on Nambiar’s dead body. It showers kisses on his cold chest and on his cheeks that had a day’s growth of hair.

Throughout the obsequies, the soul hovers around Nambiar’s body. Taking its seat on a ray of sunlight, it watches Nambiar’s body being reduced to ashes in the funeral pyre.

Weeks are over since Nambiar’s death, but his soul refuses to go away. It seeks refuge in his naphthalene-smelling clothes kept neatly folded in the almirah. It crawls about in silence among the other things associated with him – like his framed photograph on the wall, his ear-studs and ring kept in his wife Janu’s tin trunk.

One day the soul finds the clothes are no more there. It switches its perch on to the studs and the ring. Soon it finds the studs and ring too are gone. It then moves on to occupy the framed photo. Lying there it dreams of the scent and the warmth of the body that it has lost forever. It showers tender kisses on the neck, the cheeks and the head in the photograph.

A monsoon wind brings the photo crashing down from the wall. The glass shatters on the ground to a thousand shreds. The photograph, minus the glass, is picked up and put on the top rack of the almirah. There cockroaches feast on it and eventually all that is left of it is just a few white spots. The paper is now flung away and lies in the gutter. But still Nambiar’s soul refuses to leave it. Eventually the first rain of the next season carries that too away and it disappears forever.

There is nothing left now that belonged to Nambiar. Still, says the story, the soul refuses to move on. Instead, it haunts the men and women who carried Nambiar’s memories in their hearts.


I remember reading sometime back a very different short story by Madhavikkutty which too talks about the soul of a dead person hovering around, watching everything that happens and listening to the talks of family members. Years back the Hindi magazine Dharmayug had brought out a theme based special issue on incidents like this. Several books like Life after Life, Life after Death, and Tales of Reincarnation also talk about such experiences. Movies have been made on this and similar themes, one of the most famous ones in recent years being Dragonfly, which inspired the Hindi movie Saya.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a book I love deeply, published in English by Oxford University Press with an Introduction by Carl Jung, talks about what exactly happens when someone dies, what happens to the dead man’s mind and consciousness in those moments and in the moments following death, what happens to these a day later, two days later, three days later and so on. The book, based on the experience of yogis who were able to retain their memories through death and afterwards, speaks about the bardo state, which is the state of bodiless consciousness after death. It discusses the changes the mind and consciousness undergo from day to day, the experiences they have, and how the mind and consciousness seek, find and re-enter a new body. Most souls, the book tells us, are able to find a new body appropriate to their needs – appropriate to their psychological inclinations, their ambitions and aspirations, their compelling needs, the scripts they had written in their inner depths during their previous existences in human bodies, their karmas, vasanas and samskaras – within forty-eight days.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a training manual. Its purpose is to train the mind to retain consciousness in the moments of death and during the bardo state so that the dead individual can avoid some of the painful experiences in the post-death state and also wisely choose its next embodiment. Originally people in Tibet used to be taught the book when they were young and given training in retaining their consciousness in their moments of death. Later on as Tibetan culture degenerated, the book was reduced to one of rituals the significance of which few people understood.

The rituals performed in Hinduism at the moment of death are based on this understanding. They centre around destroying the body as early as possible, so that the mind and consciousness do not cling to it, and then urging the soul to move on, on its onward journey.

One of the dual functions of the shraddha ceremony too is this reminding the soul not to cling to its previous existence on earth and to move on, the other being telling the departed ones how dearly we still hold them in our hearts.

A sight that I used to enjoy watching in the Himalayas was logs floating down the rivers, like the Ganga. I used to stand by the river and watch as scores of them hurtled down at great speeds through the torrential Ganga. In the words of the brahmana Ashman to King Videha, the Mahabharata tells us human relationships are like the meeting of these logs in the sea. The logs are felled at different places in the Himalayas, they come down different rivers, and they reach the sea. Imagine, the epic tells us, two logs meeting in the sea and then, after a brief meeting, parting again. Human relationships are no more than this.

Yatha kashtham cha kashtham cha sameyatam mahodadhau
Sametya cha vyapeyatam tadvad bhootasamagamah.

When the Mahabharata tells us this, the epic is telling us what the shraddha ceremony tells the departed soul, and The Tibetan Book of the Dead teaches the living individual. And for the same reasons. It is not really true that our meetings with one another in this world are things over which we have no control, as the logs have no controls over what happens to them once they are cast into the river. The Upanishads tells us that who our father is, who our mother is, who our relations are, what the environment we are born into is, are all decided by us and not by chance or by an all powerful fate over which we have no control. The Tibetan Book of the Dead says the same thing in greater detail than the Upanishads do. [Incidentally, the Book of the Dead, written in Tibet some eight or nine hundred years before Freud, speaks of the Oedipus and Electra complexes!]

But it is important that the dead one forgets his earthly attachments and moves on instead of clinging to them, as the soul of Nambiar does in Mukundan’s story. It is for this reason that the Upanishads, the Mahabharata and the Tibetan Book of the Dead all speak of relationships as temporary and as things to be not to be taken in greater seriousness than they deserve. To underline this point, the Mahabharata tells us: Each one of us has had thousands of mothers and fathers, and hundreds of sons and wives in our past existences – who do they really belong to, and who do we belong to forever?

Matapitrsahasrani putradarashatani cha
Samsareshvanubhootani kasya te kasya va vayam?

In his masterpiece, The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran says:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the Archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Attachments tie us down and reduce the chances for spiritual growth and awakening by not allowing us to move on.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of stories in our spiritual traditions that speak of the harms of attachment. One of my favourite among these is the story of Jada Bharata that the Bhagavata tells us.

Bharata was the son of King Rishabha, who was a just and wise ruler. As was the ancient Indian tradition, towards the end of his life Rishabha relinquished his kingdom and powers in favour of his eldest son Bharata and retired from active life. He wandered all over the land, not caring for anything, not caring even for his body, in a god-intoxicated state. He had become an avadhoota and his outer life became that of the blind-deaf-dumb man who roams the world naked, like an idiot, like a ghost, like a madman.

Bharata ruled the kingdom for a long time as wisely and competently as his father and other ancestors did and then, following the tradition, decided to relinquish it in his turn. He divided his kingdom among his sons and then went to Pulahashrama to live the rest of his life in spirituality there. His only joy now was the joy born of his devotions and meditation – the highest joy possible to man. And in that joy he forgot everything, including himself.

And then tragedy struck one day. The great Bharata, the former king who had given up an entire kingdom, all its wealth, all his powers, his wives and children and his subjects who too were like children to him, and had retired to an ashram seeking oneness with the Whole, developed attachment to a baby deer in the jungle.

As was his habit, Bharata was sitting lost in bliss one day on the bank of the river Gandaki when he was brought back to the world by the terrible sound of a roar nearby. It was a mighty lion. Opening his eyes and looking around, he saw a doe lifting up its head from the water it had been drinking from the river. The doe turned its head back and looked behind it, its eyes wide with mortal dread. The next moment, with its head still turned backward, without even losing the time to turn the head around, it took a mighty leap into the river. It had to save itself and the baby in its womb! And then it happened. As it landed in the river, in its terror and the strain of the leap, the doe delivered its baby into the river. Frantically swimming it reached the other bank, where it fell down dead from the strain and shock.

The king in the ascetic Bharata was awakened in that instant. He too leapt up from his seat and rushed towards the river. The lion had already moved away. The mother doe lay dead on the other bank. The baby deer was floating down the river. Bharata jumped into the Gandaki and taking mighty strokes through the current, reached the infant deer fast floating downstream. He carried the newborn baby deer to the safety of the banks.

The king’s heart melted for the orphaned baby. He dried the baby’s wet body and started caring for it. Left to itself, the king knew it wouldn’t survive one single day in the jungle.

The king now started looking after the baby deer. The baby deer followed him wherever he went. At night it slept close to him, sharing his body’s warmth. On his walks Bharata’s eyes now looked for tender grass wherever he went. His thoughts were now constantly of the helpless, tender baby that fate had brought to him and left in his care. And soon, he started loving the baby deer as he had once loved his children.

Love, compassion and caring are among the noblest emotions a human being can feel. These are what make us human. And yet, Indian spiritual wisdom tells us, these should not lead one to attachment. Love, care, show compassion, but do it with detachment. Total commitment, but with detachment – that is the way to live wisely. Practice the human dharma, but be an asanga.

Unfortunately, this is as difficult as walking on the edge of a sword – on asidhara. But all attachments have to be cut firmly with the sword of detachment – asangashastrena drdhena chhitva, as the Gita puts it.

The ascetic Bharata failed. He soon grew attached to the baby deer that he had saved from the stream. He soon forgot what constantly occupied his mind earlier. The days of god-intoxication was now no more than a distant memory. His mind was now constantly occupied with the baby deer. Its needs, its wants, its comforts, its safety – these are what occupied his mind now. Asana-shayana-atana-sthana-ashanadishhu – while seated in his ashram, while lying down on his grass mat in the ashram, while wandering in the jungle, while eating, while drinking, awake, asleep, dreaming, his mind was constantly with the deer.

Remember Bharata was an old man. He had retired to the jungle as an old man and had been living there for years when the baby deer came into his life. One day he fell sick, and realized the end of his journey was close by. By then he had started living for the deer totally. As he lay awaiting his death, his final thoughts naturally were about his deer. What will happen to it? Who will look after it? Will it be safe in the fierce jungle?

The story tells us that because his mind was so preoccupied with the deer due to his attachment to it, in his next birth Bharata was born a deer. The ascetic’s attachment stood in the way of his spiritual progress and rather than taking him into a still advanced state of consciousness – into a higher birth – in his next life time, he was reduced to a deer.

Bharata’s journey does not end here, of course. But that does not concern us here.


There are several beautiful Buddhist stories that tell us of rebirths in lower life forms due to attachments. One of my favourites among them is the story of Ba Saing from Burma, the present Myanmar. I have written about this elsewhere on this blog under the title Reincarnation: The Persistence of Memory. Another such story I love is from Sri Lanka, which talks of how a man was first reborn as a snake, then as a dog, and then as a calf, all due to attachment to his adulterous, murderer wife, all in her own house. Eventually he is reborn as her own son, though this time he is born with past life memory, which the Buddhists call jatissara nana, through which he is able to escape his attachment to her and free himself of her.

One of the central messages of the Gita is that we should be free from attachments while still being fully committed to our dharma. The birth of the Gita itself happened because Arjuna refused to fulfil his dharma, or found himself incapable of fulfilling his dharma of fighting the Mahabharata war, due of his attachment to his grandsire Bhishma and his guru Drona and other near and dear ones.



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